GoodSeed Farm > Barnes Museum Then and Now

Barnes Museum Then and Now

Marjorie and I recently took a trip to Philadelphia and visited the brand new headquarters of the Barnes Foundation, home of the world’s largest collection of post-impressionist paintings. The Barnes Foundation just completed a very controversial move from a sedate residential neighborhood in Lower Merion (a Philadelphia suburb) to a brand new facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a stone’s throw from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and the Franklin Instutute.

      Albert Barnes created the original museum during the 1920’s to house his immense collection, and provide a headquarters for his art school. We first visited there in 2005. For lovers of Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and other post-impressionists, this collection is the experience of a lifetime. It is no less so now in its new location, where tremendous care has been taken to recreate the original galleries.

      Barnes’ wife Laura planted an arboretum on the grounds of the original museum. By the time we visited it was dominated by huge specimen trees, now at least 90 years old. There were formal gardens walled with native stone, water features, and a tremendous collection of unusual perennials. The spacious grounds, quiet neighborhood and imposing stone museum building made a strong impression of peace and serenity.

      The new museum has a totally different character. While the galleries and collection have been recreated faithfully, the building and grounds are ultra-modern and surrounded by a busy city neighborhood. We were expecting a landscape that would evoke the original, but there is very little resemblance. Stark walls surround the gardens to keep the city out. Reflecting pools and water features are silent and mirror-smooth, not at all like the nature sanctuary surrounding the original Barnes.

      The Foundation selected a prestigious Philadelphia landscape design firm to design the museum grounds. Looking at their work made us wonder, as we often do, whether landscape architects know anything about taking care of plants. Everywhere plants are overcrowded, a half--dozen stuffed in where one would be enough. Tall upright shrubs were already blocking an art installation on a wall. High-maintenance taxus yews and “stupid grass” (little patches of lawn in hard-to-maintain areas) promise to be a maintenance nightmare, and already look shabby.    Most troubling is the politically correct use of “native plants,” totally out of place jumbled together inside the walled gardens, baking in the sun. Shade-loving perennials like astilbes and hostas struggle to survive, planted side by side with sun lovers. Where the original Barnes had stately boxwoods, the new one has gangly, messy plants that look like weeds.

      To be fair, this landscape is new and suffering from the recent drought. Over time, the plants will compete and some will come to dominate, others will be crowded out or die. This process happened over ninety years at the original Barnes arboretum, and it will likely happen here. But we left the museum wondering: isn’t a landscape designer supposed to visualize what his work will look like and pick the right plants for the space?